Local Custom stressed me out so much that I kept skipping to the ending and reading it over and over again just to make sure everything would be OK. I can’t say it was a relaxing read, but it was a far more realistic, and ultimately very rewarding, depiction of a romance between a human and a person who is arguably human in genetic terms but very alien in terms of culture.
Local Custom is part of the Liaden universe series by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. It was the fifth book in the series to be published but chronologically it’s the first in the series. The book starts with an awkward reunion between Anne, a Terran, and Er Thom, a Liaden. Terra and Liaden are different planets although the human populations share a distant genetic background connection. There are physical differences but no tentacles or anything. However, the cultural differences are huge, with the Liadens living in a sort of feudal high-tech society with a complex social code organized around the concept of melant’i, which involves honor and “face”.
In the past, Er Thom and Anne met at a party (she is a professor of linguistics and studies Liaden language, and he is a trader) and they had an affair. It would be unthinkable for a Liaden, especially one as high ranking as Er Thom, to marry a Terran, so Er Thom and Anne assumed that this affair would be brief. Eventually Er Thom returned home, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Anne. When it comes time for Er Thom to marry (arranged marriages are the norm in his culture) he decides that before he marries he should visit Anne and tell her how he feels. It will be, he thinks, a nice thing for her to know, and then he’ll go get married like he’s supposed to.
But surprise, Anne had a baby while he was away. Apparently, in both Anne and Er Thom’s culture this would not have been a big deal, except that she named the baby with the surname of Er Thom’s house, yos’ Galan. In Anne’s culture, to give a baby the last name of the biological father is a sign of respect, but in Er Thom’s culture, once a baby is given the house name, that baby belongs to the family, period. This is a disaster because the kid is half-Terran which is incredibly scandalous, and after some really intense drama in which two decent people try to unravel who, if anyone, is being disrespectful to whom, Er Thom prevails in his demand that Anne and the kid, whose first name is Shan, travel to Liaden to be presented to Er Thom’s family. Cue massive complications caused by family dynamics, political and social intrigue, and lots of horrible misunderstandings.
My very least favorite trope is the “Big Misunderstanding” (often shortened to “The Big Mis”). The Big Mis involves a storyline in which everyone’s problems would disappear if they would simply talk to each other and say that one important thing. Local Custom is a rare case in which The Big Mis works beautifully, because the characters are hampered by cultural differences, not stubbornness or stupidity. In most Big Mis stories, the characters choose not to divulge vital information, but in this story, the characters can’t. In many cases in this book, a person believes he or she has in fact communicated that one big thing, but the other person takes away a completely different message because of the cultural problems. In a few cases, one person willfully withholds vital information but only because they have received faulty information that forces their hand. Both of the main characters are, by nature, quite honest and direct, but their differences are so great that sometimes this honesty and directness doesn’t translate with the nuance that it should.
This book has very little action. Almost all of the conflict is emotionally driven. I could watch spaceships explode all day and not bat an eye, but watching these two intelligent, sensitive, honorable people almost ruin their lives over and over again because of circumstances beyond their control was exhausting.
It was also incredibly admirable. Most alien romances gave a few cultural conflicts that are easily glossed over. Often they are played for humor, and they are superficial. This story was much more realistic in terms of the depth of cultural conflict. It was incredibly well thought out and well written. You are never allowed to forget that these people ARE NOT STUPID. They are simply both way, way over their heads and every single conversation is a minefield. Yet their chemistry and their mutual goodness (they both seem like really good people who want to do the right thing) makes you root for them over and over again.
This book is not, strictly speaking, a romance novel, and yet it totally is. Yes, the romance was formed before the book starts, but it’s in this book that the couple has to make it work, and it all comes down to how much will they sacrifice for each other and how much do they trust each other.
It’s also about communication, and how important it is to be direct and honest and kind and honorable when you deal with other people. Er Thom and Anne are able to work together because even with their cultural and linguistic differences, they’ve laid a foundation of trust and good intentions. They are also both consistent in being more concerned with the welfare of Shan than with all this drama. For instance, Er Thom sternly reminds himself that rather than be jealous of a male friend of Anne’s who has been a father-figure to Shan, he owes him only thanks:
Jerzy Entaglia stood in some way as the child’s foster-father. The success of his efforts in that role was before Er Thom now: alert, intelligent, good-natured and bold-hearted. What should Er Thom yos’ Galan accord Jerzy Entaglia, save all honor, and thanks for a gift precious beyond price?
Sometimes romances are just frothy fun. Sometimes shit gets real. As Jennifer Crusie says in Bet Me (another book that pulls of the Big Mis trope), “This fairy tale thing…it’s not for kids.” It’s hard watching two grown-ups navigate painful stuff but it’s also thrilling, because, hello, GROWN-UPS. That thing where Er Thom refuses to allow himself to be pissy about Jerzy’s close relationship with Shan is a grown-up quote, y’all. And there’s plenty of fun stuff, too. I’ll leave you with my favorite part, a Liaden makeover scene that includes these inspiring words from the fairy godmother dressmaker:
“An original is a Code unto herself. There is not your like on all of Liad. The rules that bind you are not found within the world, but within yourself. Recall it and carry your head-so! Eh? There are those who must crane to admire you-that is their concern, not yours. There are those who will turn their face away and cry out that you are not as they.”
She lifted her hand to cover a bogus yawn. “Boors, alas, are found even in the highest houses…It will be amusing to see what the world makes of you, Lady. And what you will make of the world.”